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“Cutting the Cat in Two”: A Guided Meditation for Dealing with Conflict

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Dr. Mark Westmoquette leads a Zen Buddhist meditation to help navigate conflict in your daily life. He uses the story “Cutting the Cat in Two”—a famous Zen koan—to lead the practice and illustrate the importance of embodiment and shifting one’s perspective.

[00:00:00] Mark Westmoquette: The first thing we need to establish is our posture. So coming into a comfortable, seated meditation position and making sure that whatever orientation of the legs you choose, you’re able to sit up nice and upright and aligned and balanced.

Reaching up through the crown of the head and imagining you’re holding something like an orange or a softball in towards your chest and tilting the chin down and in sightly, so that the back of the neck can be long.

And then once we have this uprightness in the body, we can let the rest of the body soften and relax. Softening the eyes, either looking down towards the ground in front of you or you can have your eyes completely closed.

Softening the rest of your face, your jaw, your lips, the tongue resting broad on the roof of the mouth. The shoulders soft, the hands resting comfortably in your lap barely relaxed and the breath soft and relaxed.

Connecting with the belly

woman touching stomach meditation tanden

Allowing your attention to move into the body, deep down into your belly. There’s a particular energy spot two fingers width below the belly in the center, halfway between the front and the back; in Japanese they call it the tanden.

Just allowing your attention to center in this spot, the geometrical center, halfway between the top and the bottom, front and back, left and right.

And you can view your breath from this spot, the breath expanding like a balloon outwards from the center of your belly as you breathe in and then releasing in, towards the center, as you breathe out.

Then we’re going to introduce a koan into this tanden spot in the center of your belly. Now koan is a Japanese word which means literally a precedent or a case. It’s a kind of vignette from the past or a situation in the past where a monk or a group of monks or students gain an insight into the reality of their situation.

“Cutting the Cat in Two” koan

So the story goes that the monks from the Eastern hall and the Western hall were quarreling over a cat and in walks the master, his name is Nansen.

cat with buddhist monk

The master took one look at these quarreling monks, went into the center, grabbed hold of the cat, held it up, and said, Give me a word of Zen and you will save this cat. If not, I will cut this cat in two. And the monks looked at each other dumbfounded and couldn’t answer. So Nansen cut the cat in two.

Then later in the kitchen, Nansen was relating this situation to his most senior monk, Joshu, who’d been away on a shopping trip at the time; Nansen said to Joshu, How would you have answered? Joshu took off his sandal, put it on his head, and walked out and Nansen said, Well you would have saved the cat.

So this story sounds crazy, a little bit mad perhaps. How do we work with it in our meditation?

So necessarily we ask and inquire from our head, from our intellectual mind, but we need to explore it from our tanden, from the center of the belly.

The two sets of monks were quarreling. They were at conflict with each other, like two kids saying, It’s mine, no it’s mine. Or indeed as an adult in any situation where we find ourselves in conflict and we end up in this sort of hardened stance. 

Nansen comes in and says, Look what you are doing, you’re supposed to be students of Zen, give me a word of Zen to save the cat. So what he’s asking for is an expression of the truth.

He’s asking the monks to break out of their hardened, self-centered stance. So here’s the crux, how do we express Zen at this point? How do we express our truth when we’re in the point of conflict?

So what would you do? That’s what he’s asking. How would you express this?

Joshu later expressed it in his very idiosyncratic way. A little bit weird perhaps but nevertheless very direct, not getting involved in the arguments, not taking sides, just doing. So he provides an example to us.

So now, dropping your attention back down into your belly. How would you express your truth? How can express your truth right now? How can you be your truth? How can we let go of these fixed ideas, these solidified stances of I’m right and you’re wrong.

Can we take a different view?

What does your belly say?

What does your gut say?

Sometimes a gulf can open up so wide that it feels like it’s not just the Eastern and the Western halls. It’s the Eastern and the Western sides of the world or the Eastern and the Western sides of the universe. The gap becomes so large it’s almost insurmountable.

Shifting your perspective

But that gap is only a matter of perspective. You over there and me over here, is just a perspective. Because when we just tweak our camera lens and see the world from a different view, we realize that you over there and me over here, are not actually separate. 

We’re both manifestations of this one universe. We are one together.

What would the left hand say to the right hand when the left hand acknowledges that it’s connected to the right hand?

With this view can we answer Nansen when he says, Give me a word of Zen?

Step into that place where there is no gap between you and the other.

lights on highway universe night sky with stars

The conflict of the other is your conflict. The suffering of the other is your suffering.

So our job now is to embody this place in our sitting so that when we do find ourselves in a place of conflict we are already very familiar with this perspective and we no longer fall into the trap of thinking, you over there and me over here. And I’m right and you’re wrong.

We can apply what Nansen is asking us to do and express a word of Zen in that moment, with your difficult colleague or your wife or your next-door neighbor or your dad or whoever it might be.

Maybe you don’t want to take off your sandal and put it on your head because that would look very weird. But maybe for you, you have your own way of expressing your truth.

So very gently, swaying the body a little from side to side, maybe taking a deeper breath if you like, let your eyes lift when you feel ready.

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